Are US mass shootings an 'unsolvable' problem, as some conservatives say?

The shooter in Oregon, who killed nine , owned 13 guns, all legally purchased. Would new gun regulations stop such mass shootings?

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Memorial flowers are seen outside Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, United States, October 2, 2015. A gunman stalked onto a college campus in southwestern Oregon on Thursday and opened fire, killing nine people and wounding seven before police shot him to death, authorities said, in yet another burst of U.S. gun violence that ranked as the deadliest this year.

Conservative blogger Hugh Hewitt told CNN anchor Don Lemon on Friday night that mass shootings, such as the one that struck a small community college in Roseburg, Ore., on Thursday, are essentially “unsolvable” because few mass shooters would have been stopped by new regulations.

A similar point was also raised Friday by former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, a presidential aspirant, who told a crowd in response to the shootings that “stuff happens … and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

The shooter in Oregon, who killed nine and injured seven before killing himself, owned 13 guns, all legally purchased from a federal firearms dealer, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Douglas County, Ore., Sheriff John Hanlin told reporters that number of weapons was normal for a household in the hunter-friendly region. And gun groups, as they have after other massacres, noted that stronger gun laws would not have stopped the Oregon shooter, nor most of the other 294 mass shootings that have been reported in the US this year.

Whether that’s a cynical or realistic view is up for debate. As of June, polls show more American support protecting the right to possess guns than do restricting gun ownership. But a frustrated President Obama, who has addressed the nation after at least 10 major mass shootings during his presidency, said Americans “have a deep obligation, all of us, to try” to stop gun violence.

Indeed, a majority of Americans, including National Rifle Association (NRA) members, agree that “common sense” gun regulations, including closing the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows private sales without background checks, should be an option. Even recent Supreme Court rulings allowing firearm ownership for self-defense don't state that gun ownership is an absolute right.

Yet it’s proven challenging to get the US Congress to advance even small tweaks to how the nation handles citizen gun ownership. “Somehow, this has become routine,” Obama said after Roseburg shooting. “The reporting is routine. My response here at the podium ends up being routine … we’ve become numb to this.”

To be sure, gun rights groups do have ideas about how to stop mass shootings, primarily by promoting more gun ownership. In response to revelations that the shooter targeted Christians, Tenn. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey urged “fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to think about getting a handgun carry permit.” He added: “Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.”

Over the past decade, America’s gun culture has expanded rather than constricted, supported by new state laws promoting gun ownership.

At the same time, however, there are signs in some states, including Oregon, that cinching up background checks and making it easier for authorities – like teachers or police officers – to intervene is more politically palatable when there are questions about whether a person is mentally capable of owning a gun.

Meanwhile, some Americans have begun looking deeper into what’s behind so many mass killings, mostly by disenchanted, lonely, and mentally disturbed young men who apparently see killing as a way to add meaning and posterity to their lives.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on Friday on how warped ideals of masculinity may play into motivations for mass killers like Christopher Harper-Mercer, the Oregon shooter.

Some see American ideals of masculinity as a root cause of mass violence. Others say the “feminization” of US schools and unhealthy suppression of male urges lead to “the confusion and alienation that so many young men feel today,” writes Milo Yiannopoulous, on Breitbart. Some men, including “the less stable, less supported, less able to cope with their natures , become progressively more angry until they explode in rage and pain.”

He adds: “Society has got to start treating boys better if it wants to avoid more of this in the future.”

The news that Harper-Mercer spent a month at Army basic training in South Carolina before getting an administrative discharge also provides new clues into specific phenomena that can lead to mass killers.

“Failing as a soldier is a very common occurrence among school shooters,” Peter Langman, author of “School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators," writes in an email to the Monitor. “Many of them have military aspirations that are thwarted. It seems that they seek military careers as a way to establish a masculine identity for themselves. When this fails. they may be devastated.”

The search for meaning in the wake of tragedy, alone, seems important to many observers, even those inclined to oppose curbs on gun ownership.

“After various highly publicized shootings, those of us who are skeptical about gun controls are often asked: So what are we suggesting should be done about the shootings?” writes UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh in the Washington Post. “If we’re not suggesting gun controls … the argument goes, we’re not taking gun tragedies seriously.”

He adds: “We should certainly consider proposals that aim to ameliorate the problem, and weigh their costs and benefits. But we should not presume that there’s somehow a moral imperative to Do Something. In fact, there’s a moral imperative not to do something that’s likely to make matters worse.”

Others argue the opposite: that it’s a moral imperative to address the all-too-common mass violence that has resulted in record numbers of victims.

Jeb Bush's "stuff happens" response was intended to suggest that more government oversight isn't necessarily the answer. But it sounded callous, to many.

“But I resist the notion — and I had this challenge as governor — because we had — look, stuff happens, there’s always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do," he said  at a campaign event in South Carolina.

Later, when asked again about his comment, he said: “Things happen all the time. Things. Is that better?”

The New York Daily News editorial board didn't agree: “Can you imagine a President Jeb Bush consoling the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers of the Oregon dead, victims of just stuff, victims just of things.” 

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